Burial At Sea

By David Liscio

While most of us don't like to contemplate it, there are more and more options for boat lovers taking their final trip on the high seas.

Photo of an at sea burialPhoto: David Liscio

When most of us hear the phrase "burial at sea," images of a flag-draped coffin perched on the rail of a warship likely come to mind — a tradition perpetuated by Hollywood, and books like Master and Commander. But public attitudes toward final resting places have evolved in recent years, and as more families seek alternatives to celebrating their deceased, the trend toward scattering ashes far out to sea from the deck of a boat has become more popular. Another trend is emerging among non-military families, however — that of non-cremated, eco-friendly, full-body burials.

At Maritime Burials in Long Beach, California, owner David Schaffner has conducted approximately 100 sea burials in the past four years, all in federal waters at least three miles from shore (rules may differ from state to state) and at a minimum depth of 600 feet, often deeper, per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules. Usually such burials are at the request of the family, for a loved one who had a deep connection to the sea, or boating, during their life. But sometimes there's a little more to the story. This summer Schaffner buried a woman at sea in the exact location where the Navy had buried her military-veteran husband 27 years previously. "Using the coordinates, we brought her to the same spot," he says.

"I don't charter my boat," he adds. His vessel, Affirmation, "acts as a hearse. If mourners attend, they go aboard a second boat, which usually has a better view of the dignified ceremony." Often full-body burials will include shrouding the body in cotton sailcloth. Schaffner charges $2,000 for his services. That's more expensive than cremation, but he says burials at sea cut costs when compared to cemetery burials, provide a solution for those who don't have or want an earthen plot, conserve natural resources, and for many symbolize a return to the ocean that sustains the planet. He doesn't do ash scatterings.

Captain George Hogrefe, owner of Seaburials in New Jersey, is a retired former police lieutenant who had an unusual entry into the business. "About 16 years ago, I was fishing a few miles from the Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey when I saw two guys on a commercial fishing boat tossing bags into the sea. I motored over and told them they shouldn't be throwing garbage into the ocean, and learned that a funeral home was paying them $50 a bag to dispose of people's remains. They were making a game of it, seeing who could throw the bags the highest. I told them that wasn't right and I decided that when I retired, I'd do sea burials with dignity." That's what he's been doing for the past 12-plus years. "We get lots of burials from the Midwest and Pennsylvania," he says. He's also had some memorable burials, including a World War II veteran. "I had a World War II plane fly over and do a victory roll, and there was a bagpiper onboard. One fellow wanted us to add his dive weights. Another wanted his fishing pole."

Hogrefe does a couple of sea burials and about 50 ash scatterings annually. Cost depends on what is wanted. His chartered boats typically carry 20-80 mourners, and he prefers 1,000-foot depths, and a silted sea bottom. He gives passengers a life jacket briefing beforehand and urges them not to wear high heels. "Some people just aren't boaters," he says. For Hogrefe, it's personal, and he foresees a similar burial for himself, when the time comes. "My mother was buried at sea in Florida,
so I know she's all around me."

Captain Brad White, founder of New England Burials at Sea, offers service from Maine to Miami and a stretch of the West Coast. Mourners, a licensed funeral director, and the deceased are gathered aboard the same vessel, which heads miles offshore, depending on regional law — for instance, 40 miles in Massachusetts, 100 in New York. "We're maritime planners, not funeral directors," says White. His company gives more than a nod to tradition. The casket-shaped shrouds they use have a special chamber for cannonballs. According to White, the blacksmiths who forge ceremonial cannonballs for the USS Constitution, the nation's oldest commissioned warship, create those used in the shrouds. Vessel and crew costs $9,750.

David Schaffner said many families initially assume sea burials are either unlawful or complicated to arrange, only to feel accomplished once the ceremony is underway with Coast Guard and EPA approval. "Sea burials are really a new modality for the funeral business," he says. "Every time you go to the ocean, you'll think of that loved one."

Note: The EPA specifies that "cremated remains shall be buried in or on ocean waters without regard to the depth limitations specified for non-cremated remains ... provided that such burial takes place at least three nautical miles from land." 

David Liscio is an award-winning international photojournalist and avid sailor. He is based in Nahant, Massachusetts.

— Published: December 2014

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